What is Leprosy?


Leprosy occurs when someone gets infected by the bacteria causing the disease. It would be hard for anyone to catch the bacteria but long time exposure to an infected person with leprosy in the advanced stage will make it possible. A person who is inflicted with this disease will go through the social stigma throughout his whole life due to the severely disfigured appearance resulting from the disease.

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Treatments for leprosy are not only intended get rid of the bacteria causing the disease but to help sufferers deal with the social stigma brought by the illness. There are several treatment options to choose from, and their effectiveness depends on the specific needs of the patient.

What is Leprosy?

Leprosy has been a widely known form of skin disease even in the Bible history.  It is characterized by nerve damage, muscle weakness and skin sores. The ailment can also cause damage to mucous membranes. It is also referred to as Hansen’s disease which slowly gets worse over time. There are two types of leprosy, and these are:

  • Tuberculoid

This is a benign form of leprosy which primarily involves an infection on the nerve and skin leading to numbness on the extremities, ulceration and contractures.

  • Lepromatous

This is a malignant type of leprosy which primarily affects the skin wherein the incubation of the bacteria lasts from a few months to decades after exposure to the bacteria. It can spread easily even though symptoms do not manifest early.

Who is most affected by leprosy?

The disease is more prevalent in densely populated areas such as in the tropical and subtropical sections of South and Central America, Africa and Asia wherein people receive inadequate medical attention and have poor sanitation and nutrition causing massive suffering to the affected individuals. Moreover, leprosy can affect anyone regardless of age, though studies showed that a higher incidence of the disease is seen among children, in which 20% are 10 years old and under. While leprosy in children affects both genders, the disease is more common in male adults than female adults.

Is Leprosy contagious ?

Contrary to common misconception that leprosy is highly contagious, several studies prove otherwise. In fact, it would be very difficult for anyone to get it even by touching the skin of an infected individual. The reasons for this are, first, almost everyone is immune to it as the body’s defense mechanism can fight it off. Second, a person must have close contact with an infected individual for long periods of time to get the bacteria. It should also be noted that this is only possible when the disease is already in its advanced stage. A person can get the bacteria that cause leprosy through respiratory droplets by means of coughing and sneezing. Scientists are still figuring out other means for the spread of the bacteria because over 50% of cases reported no confirmed or close contact with a leper.

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What causes leprosy?

The organisms causing the disease are Mycobacterium lepromatosis and Mycobacterium leprae. Although they are not highly contagious, their incubation period is quite long before the symptoms appear, making it difficult to determine its source.

  • Mycobacterium lepromatosis

This is a newly discovered bacterium, and along with mycobacterium leprae, can cause the severe form of leprosy, the lepromatous leprosy.

  • Mycobacterium leprae

This organism is also called the acid fast bacterium and is characterized by its rod and aerobic shape that flourish in human and animal cells.

Symptoms of leprosy

Leprosy is a slow-growing skin disease, and so are its symptoms. The symptoms of leprosy cannot be easily detected due to their subtle nature. When they are manifested, the disease is most likely in its extreme stage. Some of the signs and symptoms to note of include:

  • Declining pain sensation
  • Numbness
  • Skin lesions
  • Painless skin sores
  • Facial disfigurement
  • Loss of sensation for hot and cold temperatures
  • Dry eyes
  • Less blinking

How is Hansen’s disease diagnosed?

This dreadful disease can be diagnosed by:

  • Examining the skin through skin scraping
  • Biopsy of the skin lesion
  • Lepromin skin test

The lepromin test is done to determine which form of leprosy is present. When the disease is diagnosed earlier, the chances of permanent disability and deformities will not likely occur because the treatment starts early, thus, preventing further damage.

Leprosy treatment

Those who are infected by Hansen’s disease should seek treatment from doctors who have vast experience in leprosy treatment. Leprosy treatment primarily involves taking antibiotics for 6 to 12 months. In some cases, it may even last up to 2 years with the use of two or more antibiotics due to the increasing resistance of leprosy-causing bacteria to medications that were previously used in treating the disease.

Leprosy is a dreadful skin disease that gives rise to myriad of medical, emotional, psychological and social problems. It is not easily contracted but it is very important to take preventive measures to avoid it or to limit its damage.

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